Dirty Shame: John Waters Carnal-Concussion Comedy

Billed as America’s first carnal-concussion comedy, “A Dirty Shame,” Waters’ latest feature, made in 2004, provided further proof that he was losing his edge. He seemed unable to find suitable subjects to address the shifting pulse of American pop culture, which was quickly getting quirkier, more liberal, and left-of-center. Going out of its way to be rude in signaling sexual anarchy, it’s a movie with dirty mind, generous heart, but cold soul. Set in the Harford Road area of Waters’ Baltimore, “Dirty Shame” tells the story of a horny horde of “sex addicts” who invade a blue-collar neighborhood to the shocking dismay of its “neuter” residents.

Lust seems to be in the air on Harford Road. The protagonist, Sylvia Stickles, played by popular TV personality Tracey Ullman, is a grumpy and repressed middle-aged Baltimorean who’s married to a dull husband, Vaughn (Chris Isaac). Her routine consists of running the family’s “Pinewood Park and Pay” convenience store, and preparing meals for her exhibitionist daughter Caprice (Selma Blair), a go-go dancer with stupendously enlarged breasts, known to her fans as Ursula Udders (Get the reference?). After several nude and disorderly violations, Caprice is sentenced to home detention in her mother-in-law’s apartment, set above the Stickles’ garage, which means that the neighbors have access to the family’s secrets.

Sylvia gets involved in a freak accident on her way to work, injuring her head. A raunchy tow-truck driver, Ray-Ray Perkins (Johnny Knoxville) rushes to her aid. Functioning as sexual healer, he brings out her flaming cauldron of hidden concussion lust. No longer a prude, Sylvia now views the world through hypersexual eyes. Vaughn is shocked by his wife’s resurgent libido, and when he sees her doing a raunchy “hootchie-coochie” dance during a visit to a nursing home, he knows that something is wrong. Meanwhile, Sylvia’s mom, Big Ethel (Susanne Shepherd), already up in arms about the liberties around her, decides it is time to fight back. Supported by her sex-hating neighbors, including Marge the Neuter (Mink Stole), Big Ethel leads the battle for “Neuter Normality.”

Burning with desire, the bewildered Sylvia seeks out Ray-Ray at his garage, where she discovers she is not alone in eroto-mania. Head injuries have brought forth a flock of Sex Addicts who infiltrate every part of the community, from the post office and the police station to the Stickles’ “Park and Pay.” Ray-Ray’s disciples, who form an aggregate of bizarre fetishists, plan to take over Harford Road. Sylvia, whose arrival portends a new age of erotic bliss, becomes the twelfth member of Ray-Ray’s inner circle. But Sylvia’s torrid night out at the Holiday House biker bar is brought to an abrupt end by a second head injury, after which her raging libido is snuffed out like a candle. To help Sylvia deal with her “runaway vagina,” and reclaim her sexual sobriety, the Stickles turn to a family doctor and 12-step meetings.

However, having seen the “Promised Land,” Ray-Ray and his followers would not abandon their sister to erotic anorexia. With joyous cry of “Let’s go sexin’!” they set out to rescue Sylvia and liberate the whole community. The final battle unfolds with Big Ethel and her fellow Neuters making their last stand against the Sex Addicts’ lewd invasion. As the struggle moves from the “Park and Pay” to the streets of Harford, head injuries multiply—and sexual miracles continue to happen. Sylvia and Vaughan’s marriage is jump-started by a new erotic act that elevates the Sex Addicts into a whole new dawn of sexual awakening.

Among the film’s nice touches is the growing bond between mother Sylvia and daughter Caprice, brought closer together by a series of sexual concussions. For a while it’s fun to observe Ullman running around with prosthetic buxom, torn between carnal rapture and bouts of self-castigation, venting at the tyranny of the axis of evil. As a frumpy hausfrau who twitches with lust, she horrifies the residents of her mother-in-law’s retirement home. However, acting-wise, the film’s revelation is Johnny Knoxville, whose mixture of charismatic looks, natural sexiness, and cool, low-life attitude is suitable for playing the erotic evangelist. Long-term collaborator Vincent Peranio created a tawdry version of blue-collar suburbia. The vintage score of bawdy, double-entendre-laden nuggets includes The Pussy Cat Song, Hump-a Baby, Tony’s Got Hot Nuts, Eager Beaver Baby, and Itchy Twitchy Spot.

But, unfortunately, “Dirty Shame” doesn’t take advantage of Tracy Ullman’s talent for showing the foibles and eccentricities of American kooky women, the way “Serial Mom” had served Kathleen Turner so well. Structurally and technically, “Dirty Shame” is a mess. Archival footage inserts of hoochie dancers and other period eromaniacs are sporadically diverting. The film’s art scheme and digital work are cheesy (by design, I assume), manifest in the horny squirrels and fornicating flora. The sex-related buzzwords that flash at intervals across the screen are only cute and diverting up to a point.

Tracey Ullman as Sylvia Stickles

Johnny Knoxville as Ray-Ray Perkins

Selma Blair as Caprice Stickles/Ursula Udders

Chris Isaak as Vaughn Stickles

Suzanne Shepherd as Big Ethel

Mink Stole as Marge

Patricia Hearst as Paige

Jackie Hoffman as Dora

Wes Johnson as Fat Fuck Frank

Paul DeBoy as Wendell Doggett

Gaelan Alexander Connell as Horny kid

Channing Wilroy as Male motorist

Alan J. Wendl as Officer Alvin

David A. Dunham as Mama Bear

Dave Moretti as Papa Bear

Jeffrey Auerbach as Baby Bear

Jewel Orem as Officer Loose Linda

Jonas Grey as Warren the mailman

Doug Roberts as Driving neuter husband

Mary Vivian Pearce as Nonjudgmental ex-sex addict

Jean Hill as Woman at fire escape

Ty Ford as the taxi cab driver

Bob Adams as Bus passenger

George  Figgs (uncredited) as Neuter

Ricki Lake (cameo) as herself

David Hasselhoff (cameo) as himself